The End of Making Props

At times, it feels that more and more plays these days call for real props and real furniture. Looking through the past days of theatre history, it seems that props used to be constructed more often than these days. With the tastes of designers evolving to want more realistic items and less “proppy” pieces, and with the amount of time between the initial designing and the need for real objects in the hands of the actors, it seems inevitable that one day prop people will be merely buying and distributing things rather than building art for the theatre.

I ran across this article recently. In it, a property master laments:

“I groan for the decease of the good old times when a property man was a property man and not merely a distributor of borrowed articles…

There was a time when the property man was an artist in his line, because he was required to build and fashion nearly all the properties used upon the stage. But now his occupation is an empty thing. All the props are borrowed, and all the property man has to do is set ’em around on the stage and take care of them when they’re not in use. The days of the hifalutin modern society drama have altered things sadly. Now we must have real ebony furniture, real bronzes, real china and porcelain vases, real Turkish rugs, real chandeliers, gas fixtures, brackets, rustic settees, real helmets and shields, the finest French silk flowers, and blow me if I don’t believe they’ll get to manufacturing real snow yet! Why, do you know, there is one theatre in this City that buys all the fine furniture used on its stage, and at the end of the run of a piece sells it for perhaps $100 less than it cost. Now, all that sort of thing is destructive to the artistic being of the property man. After a while, the property man will exist only in history. He will be a pale-faced vision of the past. Men will tell with wonder of the fellows who in days gone by could make a fine bronze urn or an oaken mantelpiece as of men who were giants in their day.”

Do you know when this was written?  It first appeared in the New York Times in December 30, 1883. That’s right: almost 127 years to the day.